3 Steps to Keep Commerce Rolling Despite the Impact of COVID-19

by Michael Plimsoll

Posted on 09-24-2020

For a long time – too long, in many cas­es – busi­ness­es have been reassess­ing pri­or­i­ties, strate­gies, and mind­sets about eCom­merce as a sales chan­nel. Some raced to become dig­i­tal-first. Oth­ers bare­ly left the start­ing blocks, cit­ing rea­sons they felt made good busi­ness sense. There was always time to make their move.

But a few months ago, time ran out. The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has giv­en both B2C and B2B com­merce a strong push toward eCom­merce, as the online econ­o­my absorbs the offline at break­neck pace.

“We saw two years of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion in two months,” said Satya Nadel­la, CEO of Microsoft, dur­ing the quar­ter­ly earn­ings report. Sud­den­ly, eCom­merce and the right dig­i­tal strat­e­gy became critical.

In the B2C world, stores shut down, work­ers and cus­tomers stayed home, and offline sales came to a screech­ing halt. Ecom­merce sales shot up, with a 49% dai­ly increase in the Unit­ed States alone, accord­ing to the Adobe Dig­i­tal Index. Many retail­ers switched to Buy Online Pick-Up in Store (BOPIS) to meet shop­pers’ needs.

Online sales of food, alco­hol, elec­tron­ics, and pyja­mas soared. In the UK, for instance, online food shop­ping surged by 81%, only drop­ping by 1.3% the next month, indi­cat­ing that many are still stick­ing to online gro­cery shop­ping, despite many phys­i­cal stores re-opening.

In the B2B world, com­pa­nies realised a dig­i­tal-first approach was a must to com­pete. A trend to build rela­tion­ships and sell direct­ly to con­sumers online con­tin­ues to grow. For exam­ple, lat­er in this post we look at how Unilever moved beyond its suc­cess­ful B2B eCom­merce plat­form with a B2C site. Also increas­ing are online mar­ket­places where cus­tomers can pur­chase hun­dreds of thou­sands of prod­ucts and get ful­fil­ment through the brand, via deliv­ery, or in-person.

Cus­tomers every­where are re-eval­u­at­ing behav­iours, pref­er­ences, and habits, espe­cial­ly with stay- and safer-at-home man­dates and social dis­tanc­ing prac­tices in effect. Once cus­tomers realise they can buy from your web­site or app with­out a hitch or watch a sales demo in a video online, they’ll con­tin­ue as long as they get what they need. The lessons and expe­ri­ences your cus­tomers and your busi­ness gain dur­ing the pan­dem­ic won’t be put back in the box. You can use these learn­ings to move for­ward. After you get through the worst of the lock­downs and after­math, your busi­ness needs a long-term, strate­gic approach to respond to a rapid­ly chang­ing world.

Be Agile.

If you lost your in-per­son sales chan­nel, whether that was the pri­ma­ry source of your rev­enue or a sol­id con­trib­u­tor, you need to adapt quick­ly or go out of busi­ness. eCom­merce has become a crit­i­cal life­line for cus­tomers to access essen­tial goods and ser­vices. With­out it, your busi­ness is no longer rel­e­vant. But suc­ceed­ing at eCom­merce may call for extra effort now.

For exam­ple, the MyP­il­low eCom­merce site expe­ri­enced a traf­fic spike after a White House press brief­ing high­light­ing the company’s shift to mak­ing face masks for health­care work­ers. Bur­geon­ing busi­ness is a prob­lem most com­pa­nies would love to have – but man­ag­ing the demand proved dif­fi­cult. The com­pa­ny imme­di­ate­ly migrat­ed to a full-fea­tured eCom­merce plat­form. A week lat­er, the site could han­dle 12,000 simul­ta­ne­ous vis­i­tors ver­sus 5,000, and adding to the cart took one sec­ond or less ver­sus thir­ty sec­onds or never.

Although your ini­tial response to lock­downs may have includ­ed upgrad­ing your web­site, your focus must now shift to cre­at­ing a win­ning eCom­merce expe­ri­ence.

Go Dig­i­tal.

Although the sit­u­a­tion wrought by the pan­dem­ic is unique, every year 20% of busi­ness­es expe­ri­ence a dis­as­ter – and 80% fail soon after. As part of a long-term busi­ness con­ti­nu­ity plan, your com­pa­ny must devel­op and fine-tune your eCom­merce site. Your site should sup­port self-ser­vice account man­age­ment, prod­uct research, pur­chase and reorder, and data to man­age cus­tomer rela­tion­ships and the sup­ply chain. A B2B site should graft on B2C fea­tures, such as greater usabil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy around inven­to­ry and pricing.

Food­Ser­viceDi­rect Inc., part of the Unilever food­ser­vice divi­sion, had already launched a suc­cess­ful B2B eCom­merce plat­form in Sep­tem­ber 2018, with sales and new cus­tomer acqui­si­tions each increas­ing 40%. But the com­pa­ny had the fore­sight to also build a B2C web­site for con­sumers who pre­fer to buy in bulk. That result­ed in a sales explo­sion after restau­rants and schools closed in March 2020. B2C sales now account for 45% of Food­Ser­viceDi­rect eCom­merce sales, com­pared to 25% pre-pandemic.

From cus­tomer-fac­ing oper­a­tions to ful­fil­ment and inven­to­ry man­age­ment, every activ­i­ty around your eCom­merce site should be upgrad­ed to improve effi­cien­cy and expand func­tion­al­i­ty.

Stay Con­nect­ed.

Your cus­tomers are impact­ed by the pan­dem­ic on per­son­al, pro­fes­sion­al, and finan­cial lev­els. In response, your busi­ness needs to embody trust and empathy.

Start by ensur­ing your eCom­merce site sets the right tone. When the world is chang­ing at 2020 speed, you need to review your site every month. Mas­sage your text and imagery for cur­rent con­di­tions. Post updat­ed videos of your CEO that show you com­pre­hend the dif­fi­cul­ties cus­tomers are expe­ri­enc­ing and explain how you’re work­ing through chal­lenges to sup­port them.

Pro­vide exten­sive prod­uct infor­ma­tion and self-help resources, includ­ing FAQs. Ever­green self-ser­vice con­tent can help thou­sands of cus­tomers, with­out the need for your cus­tomer ser­vice staff to inter­vene. Chat can answer com­mon ques­tions, even if you use a bot that hands off com­plex queries to live agents. Engage cus­tomers via email, social media, and oth­er chan­nels as well.

Remem­ber that build­ing strong rela­tion­ships and long-term loy­al­ty depends on how well you per­son­alise these com­mu­ni­ca­tions based on insights from the data you gather.

Rethink Com­merce.

Con­sumers’ buy­ing habits will not shift back to nor­mal – ever. To pre­pare for the new nor­mal and con­tin­ue to man­age eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty, you need to build the best pos­si­ble dig­i­tal expe­ri­ence, one that rivals or exceeds your in-per­son capa­bil­i­ties. With that, you can inter­act suc­cess­ful­ly with cus­tomers even when the phys­i­cal world shuts down.

A good start­ing point? Con­sult our busi­ness con­ti­nu­ity check­list_ to ensure your com­pa­ny stays up and run­ning – and sell­ing – no mat­ter what._

Topics: Commerce, Digital Marketing, ecommerce, Online Shopping, UK, UK Exclusive, Digital EMEA